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Dangers of ‘laughing gas’ still poorly understood, warn nurses

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The dangers of nitrous oxide – often known as laughing gas – are poorly understood, despite a change in the law, according to nurses on the third anniversary of the ban.

A new public awareness campaign on the dangers of nitrous oxide is needed ahead of the festival season, frontline nurses attending the Royal College of Nursing annual congress will warn today.

“It might give a short term high but the long term damage is no laughing matter”

Catherine Gamble

They said the recent law change had failed to tackle the use of the drug. Legislation introduced three years ago this week made it illegal to sell the gas, also known as “noz”, for psychoactive purposes.

The Home Office estimates that half a million 16 to 24 year olds in England and Wales used nitrous oxide in the last year – with the prevalence increasing for young men.

The product has legal uses and is sold in catering shops to produce whipped cream – making its circulation harder to control following the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.

In December 2018, a former chief crown prosecutor said the new law had failed to stop the supply and described the product as “death in a box”.

Silver canisters of the gas are dispensed into balloons for inhalation. The empty canisters have become a familiar sight on street pavements and in parks.

The most recent data reveals that 10.9% of men between 16 and 24 used the gas in England and Wales in 2017-18 – the second year it was illegal – compared to 6.5% of young women.

During a matter for discussion at RCN congress in Liverpool, nursing staff will describe their experience of treating young people who have become unwell after using the gas.

Those who proposed the debate will also warn that too many are still unaware of the risks, including breathing problems, dangerously-increased heart rate and burns.

“It can cause euphoria and help people to feel more relaxed, sometimes becoming giggly or hallucinating”

Roz Gittins

Many expect only a 30-second euphoria but official figures from the Office for National Statistics show an average of five deaths per year linked to the substance since 2014.

Catherine Gamble, RCN professional lead for mental health nursing, said: “Despite the increasing use of nitrous oxide, particularly among younger people, far too few people know about the risks.

“It might give a short term high but the long term damage is no laughing matter,” noted Ms Gamble.

She said: “Along with the physical effects on the body, which themselves can be very serious, there are the psychological impacts associated with the abuse of any substance which can lead to addiction.

“As nurses we need to have proper conversations with people about the risks, and to support those who need our help,” she said. “The law is very clearly not working.”

She added: “Better public information, especially aimed at festival goers and young people, about the risks would help people stay safe and reduce the burden on nursing professionals.”

Roz Gittins, director of pharmacy at drug and alcohol charity Addaction, said: “When taken recreationally, it can cause euphoria and help people to feel more relaxed, sometimes becoming giggly or hallucinating.

“There are, however, risks associated with its use and breathing problems may occur when large amounts of the gas is inhaled over a short amount of time or in an enclosed space if the person cannot breathe in enough oxygen,” she said.

“It may also cause burns due to coldness if inhaled directly from a canister or anaemia and nerve problems due to vitamin B12 deficiency associated with heavy use,” she added.

Matter for discussion 6: That this meeting of Congress discusses the lack of understanding of the abuse of nitrous oxide and its consequences on health and wellbeing. Proposed by the RCN Mental Health Forum. (MfD)

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